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Fool Me Once, Destroy Your Brand

Tricks backfire over 90% of the time and can do lasting damage to a company's reputation, experts say.
As people get inured to "stunt" viral marketing efforts such as bizarre videos, fake blogs (splogs), and duplicitous MySpace profiles, authenticity has emerged as one of the key factors driving the success of companies who hope to build "contagious" communities. (See main story, "Beyond Viral: Using The Web To Nurture 'Contagious Behavior' Among Customers.")

"Tricks backfire 90 percent of the time," says Joe Plummer, chief research officer at the Advertising Research Foundation, an industry thinktank for marketing and advertising professionals. "Take a blog that looks like it was written by a consumer but was really created by an advertiser on Madison Avenue. People don't like that. They say, 'don't do that to me, I'm not an idiot.' It might work for a day or two. But then people catch up with it. And then it can actually harm a brand."

"One of the reasons that consumer-generated marketing works is that people don't think of it as marketing," agrees Patti Williams, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. "But if you try and trick people, you're undermining the power of the technique. Consumers are already becoming suspicious."

Marketing firm Garrigan Lyman has created a number of product-centric community sites in the B2B world. One built for the IT telephony equipment manufacturer Avaya "If you make a mistake on a multimillion-dollar phone system, you've made a big mistake," says Doug Strom, chief strategist of Garrigan Lyman. "Avaya customers were having a hard time knowing what to believe from slick marketing campaigns that came directly from the company."

Still, he says, they were very interested in what their peers had to say. Strom moderates the Avaya community discussions board himself, but he doesn't edit. "Once you start to tamper with it, you lose your authenticity," he says. "If an issue comes up, Avaya is willing to put it out there and let people discuss it. You gain a lot of currency through honesty." One recent contributor to a message board thanked a fellow poster for help with a particular problem and griped, "Avaya wanted to charge me $260 for that." The comment--and the solution to the problem--stayed posted.

"You have to be willing to take the good with the bad," says Strom.

John Moore, a former Starbucks marketing executive who runs the popular marketing site Brand Autopsy, agrees wholeheartedly. "There has to be passion, and spontaneity," he says. "It can't come off as a slick marketing program."

Moore points to WalMart's attempt to be hip with its social networking experiment, THE HUB. "Everything about it says 'My Space knock-off.' Teenagers don't talk like that. They don't think like that. It came across as disingenuous. And it backfired."

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Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing